Wednesday, January 6, 2016

India - The haunted house of West Bengal

West Bengal and Darjeeling are known for their high quality tea and, as we were about to find out, impressive landscapes! We were very fortunate to have been given the tip to ride via Mirik, as this would be a scenic route. It wasn't just scenic, it was stunning! Mike and I both said this was our best ride in India yet! A winding mountain road through beautiful landscapes and surrounded by tea plantations. Add to that a good quality road as well and we were in for a treat. But there was more to it than that as this part of India turned out to be different in more ways than just the landscape.

The roadwork crew... posing for the camera. Just look at the 'equipment' these guys have to use to fix the roads! Most of it is literally handwork as they put the tarmac in with a trowel! Considering what they have and what they have to work with, it's even more amazing how good the roads are around here!
After just a couple of kilometres we noticed something really strange, something we had not seen since we entered India... An approaching car stopped to let us through... Technically speaking we had priority but until then we had only been run off the road and 'greeted' by blasting horns (the Indian way of saying 'I'm coming through so get out of my way!) in similar situations. Here they actually gave us some room and let us through... wow! In the mountains of West Bengal the driving is very different. By western standards it's still very much an insane place but by Indian standards it's very sedate. It made our visit to the mountains of West Bengal even more enjoyable.

Waking up to this view in the morning, right from your $7.93 hotel room is priceless

The friendly landscape seemingly also had its effect on the people in other ways. The faces are much friendlier here, quite a few smiling and in general much happier than what we had seen before. We found ourselves riding through green mountains, saw tea being picked and found quite a few monkeys too. We stopped often for photos, or just to have a look around, the planned ride for the day was a short one, which gave us ample time to let it all sink in. We thoroughly enjoyed our ride, we thoroughly enjoyed everything that day!

The only smudge on the day was the hotel we had found on the net, the Bloomfield, which turned out to be a nasty one. Nasty because of the lady who operates it. She had promised secure bike parking, which turned out to be in front of the hotel out on the main road... Vince and Karen had taken a shorter, less scenic route and were already there. Their BMW was parked out on the street and the bike cover had already been half removed by people who can't keep their hands off the bike... I pointed this out to the lady but she couldn't care, so we left. Then she became nasty and said I had to pay her anyway as I had booked... 'Yes, I have booked for a hotel with secure bike parking, this is not a hotel with secure bike parking, so unless you deliver what you promised I'm leaving'. 

It is still India... a very winding road, fast driving with two kids on the roof rack clearly enjoying themselves... right until the moment they fall off...
The smudge was short lived as just up the hill  behind the Bloomfield, I could see a guesthouse with an entry gate visible. I rode up there and found the gate was the entry to the seating area in front of the guesthouse. The lady running the guesthouse, called 'the Pahari Soul' was very friendly though 'Of course you can park your bikes here she said, no problem'. The rooms were cheaper too but... she had only one room left and was totally sold out the night after... unless we wouldn't mind a basic room which has a shared bathroom and worked out at $7.93 per room, including breakfast! As all we needed was a bed, so we took it.

A steam train in the middle of town, and a regular service all the way to Siliguri too!

The 'no problem' attitude of the lady running the Pahari Soul went so far that even Vince and Karen could park their bike next to ours although they had decided to stay at the Bloomfield, only to find that the promised wifi at the Bloomfield wasn't there either (while we had been  promised wifi on Booking dot com). Their included breakfast was very poor while ours was so extensive and very tasty that we almost felt embarrassed (for a room 1/5th of the price). So all seemed good at Pahari Soul.... until we heard from locals the place was haunted...! Claire, who stayed there as well, turned pale when she heard it, as she did have a horrible nightmare the night before... Mike and myself were left alone by the ghosts though :-) 

Darjeeling is touristic of course and we were there in the weekend too. So it was busy, but not overly so. Darjeeling's only problem is the hundreds of Mahindra Jeeps on the road used as taxis. They are noisy and badly smelling diesels with impatient drivers trying to ruin an otherwise great town. They should honestly be banned from the roads. In most places it's not easy to replace the taxis, but in Darjeeling it actually is. There is a unique railway in use, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, which starts in Siliguri and takes you to the hart of Darjeeling. They even run it with a steam train! The train ride takes 7 hrs and has no less than 503 bridges to cross... We should have come here sooner and have the time to taken that ride!

Who said you need a building to run a business? A shoemaker in Darjeeling, working out on the street and even using his feet to hold the shoe
A visit to Darjeeling isn't complete without visiting a tea plantation. Tours of a plantation can be very costly but not so in the Happy Valley. The tours are free and yet the plantation produces one of the best tea in the world. Their tea isn't even available in India but only sold in 3 countries, England (at Harrods), Germany and Japan. Most of the tea process is manual labour, which starts with manual picking and continues to be mostly hand work even in the processing plant. It's an interesting tour as it offers clear insight into a complex process from green leaves to tea leaves.

Our lunch being prepared...
Opting for street food if we can, we found Darjeeling very good. For lunch we had a plate of Alu Tikka for US$ 0.48 (yes 48 cents!), which filled the 4 of us... The day after we had a Tali for just 95 cents each, which was not only a big meal but also very good! The only place to avoid was the newly opened up nameless restaurant just opposite the guesthouse on the main road, which served noodle type dishes, which were not properly cooked, not that tasty and all gave us stomach cramps...

Well worth a visit if you like to see big cats like the Bengal Tiger, is the Darjeeling Zoo. In general I'm not a zoo fan. Animals should be free, not in captivity. At the same time i was the only chance to see the Bengal Tiger. As it was, the Bengal Tiger wasn't to be photographed. Modern Zoos often have huge enclosures these days but the Darjeeling Zoo is pretty much old school. Tickets are quite reasonable at 100 rupees each and wee did see some amazing animals like the Red Panda.

On the subject of animals, Darjeeling has a large population of monkeys. We had already seen them along the road when we entered this beautiful part of the world. Don't think they are cute and cuddly though as their teeth are quite capable of a lot of damage... and they are seriously quick! They are funny though!

Strangely enough we found butchers in Darjeeling selling beef... a controversial thing in India
The ride from Darjeeling to Siliguri is about 5-6 hours, if you want to take the time to see it and take a couple of photos along the way. We had one final stopover at our by now favourite hotel, the Rajdarbar, before heading east to the Myanmar border. A ride which had a couple of good surprises in store for us...!

That was the bridge...